Japan targets early qualification for Brazil
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -Japan was the first nation to qualify for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and the Asian champion could achieve the feat for a third straight time with a win at Oman on Wednesday.
With 10 points from four matches in the final Asian qualification round, and four matches left to play, a win could move Japan eight points clear at the top of Group B. The top two teams from each of the two groups automatically qualify for Brazil in 2014.
Even without injured Manchester United star Shinji Kagawa, Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni is confident his team can win this week, just as it did during 2011 when the playmaker was out with a broken foot, or when the team's other major star, Keisuke Honda, was injured earlier this year.
"Kagawa is not here this time, but I'm sure that whoever fills in for him will do well,'' the Italian coach told local media. "But don't forget that the players that have come in to deputize for them have done a great job.''
Japan is aiming to bounce back from a 4-0 loss against Brazil last month, although that result was preceded by an impressive win 1-0 over France in Paris.
Zaccheroni has warned his players to expect an aggressive performance from Oman, which lost 2-1 to Estonia on Thursday in a warm-up match.
"It's good match to play against a team like Estonia before we face Japan,'' Oman's French coach Paul Le Guen said. "I am satisfied with the team's performance. We played well for almost 80 minutes. The team failed to maintain the tempo in the last few minutes and that shows some players are not fit enough.''
While Japan has taken control of top spot, the other four teams in the Group B are scrambling for the other automatic place. Just three points separate Australia in second place and Iraq in fifth.
Iraq hosts Jordan at the neutral venue of Doha, Qatar - after FIFA decreed that the security situation in Iran is too volatile - knowing that nothing less than a victory will keep its hopes of second spot alive.
Australia and Group A leader South Korea sit out this round of matches and will meet in a friendly just south of Seoul on Wednesday.
Socceroos coach Holger Osieck is treating the Seoul match as a chance to experiment in the face of criticism from local media that the national team is reliant on a core of aging stars. Young Red Star Belgrade goalkeeper Eli Babali, Melbourne Heart's Aziz Behich and highly-rated midfielder Tom Rogic have been called up for the first time.
"It's another opportunity for me to enlarge the group,'' Osieck said. "It's going to be mainly A-League players, so now the guys who perform on the domestic level here have to show how far they are ready to be on the international level.''
Unlike Australia, South Korea coach Choi Kang-hee has declined to summon his European-based contingent, with 15 of his 18 players coming from the K-league.
"We have been thinking about the World Cup qualifiers for a long time, but this is a game to give the younger players and those without much national team experience a chance to play for the national team,'' Choi said. "There's not a big difference between the players in the K-league and those who play in Europe, and I hope they can show that against Australia.''
Iran, second in Group A, takes on third-place Uzbekistan in Tehran. A win for either team will put them ahead of South Korea. After stuttering starts, both picked up vital wins in the previous round. Iran will be without veteran playmaker Ali Karimi, who injured his hamstring during a 6-1 win over Tajikistan in a friendly last week.
"We know that Uzbekistan will be a tough game, but we are in good form and condition at the moment,'' said Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, formerly manager at Real Madrid and Portugal. "We are focused on the World Cup and that is our ultimate goal.''
Uzbekistan is struggling with injuries to key players Timur Kapadze and Odil Ahmedov, and will be without the suspended Anzur Ismailov and Jasur Khasanov.
In the group's other match, Qatar and Lebanon have four points each and meet in Doha. A win would keep either team in contention for a top-two spot.
The teams that finish in third place in each group will play-off to determine who will face the fifth-placed South American qualifier for another berth with a place in Brazil at stake.
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